The MCG Boxing Day Test is always an eagerly anticipated occasion, but this year it feels like there is an added edge. The series is poised at 1-1; the stump mics have been turned up; Australia are finding their voice again; Virat Kohli isn’t taking a backward step and there is grass on a Melbourne pitch. It has the makings of a Christmas cracker.
If India can bounce back from their Perth defeat and register victory they will have retained the Border-Gavaskar trophy. If Australia take the honours again it will mark a significant upturn in their fortunes at the end of a year of turmoil and no little disgrace. And if it’s a draw let’s hope it’s a thriller and not like last year.
The pitches in this series have provoked much discussion and Melbourne’s 22 yards has been at the forefront of everyone’s attention for days. Last year the surface was marked “poor” by the ICC after the drab Ashes stalemate and this Test, under the management of a new curator, feels like a significant moment as an iconic ground tries to repair its reputation.
These two teams have shown that when there is some help on offer for the bowlers they can produce compelling cricket which makes for a wonderful spectacle. The contest between bat and ball has been excellent in Tests throughout 2018 and it would be nice to think it will end that way.
The unknown qualities of the pitch – despite the evidence of this season’s Sheffield Shield matches – left both sides with thinking to do over their XIs. India won’t admit it, but fielding four quicks in Perth was a mistake – another one in a year of selection blunders – but it doesn’t have to prove terminal for their hopes in this series. They started 2018 hoping to create an overseas legacy for themselves and this match will go a long way to deciding if that happens.
After an unconvincing performance in Adelaide, Aaron Finch shaped up much better under testing conditions in Perth. However, the nasty blow he took on the finger in the second innings curtailed his knock and on return he gloved his first delivery down the leg side. He has looked comfortable in the nets leading into the third Test – which would be his first Boxing Day in the baggy green – but that dodgy digit is certainly a target for the India quick bowlers. Unless the pitch is really slow and low, and everyone hopes that isn’t the case, Finch will surely get some short deliveries early on.
India’s selections away from home this year, especially in England and Australia, have been the subject of significant criticism. Ravi Shastri said all that is being ignored – on this tour because they were in a different hemisphere – but while some calls may have been 50-50 others, such as those made in Perth, were more clear errors. There are a number of issues to resolve for Melbourne and their XI will also bring much scrutiny.
Mitchell Marsh has been recalled at the expense of Peter Handscomb, whose technique has been worked over by the India quick bowlers, but it’s also the overs Marsh can provide which have been factored in on a surface that could yet change character.
Australia 1 Aaron Finch, 2 Marcus Harris, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Shaun Marsh, 5 Travis Head, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Tim Paine (capt. & wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Josh Hazlewood
India have dropped both their openers – 97 runs between them in eight innings – for the Boxing Day Test. Mayank Agarwal is set to get his debut with Hanuma Vihari moving up the order from his No. 6 station. R Ashwin has not recovered fully, which means Ravindra Jadeja has come in as part of the four-man attack. Rohit Sharma, though, is back to fitness, slotting in at No. 6. India have resisted the temptation to bring Hardik Pandya right back in.
India 1 Mayank Agarwal, 2 Hanuma Vihari, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt.), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Rohit Sharma, 7 Rishabh Pant (wk), 8 Ravindra Jadeja, 9 Mohammed Shami, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
Pitch and conditions
Rated “poor” last year, the pitch has been the topic of much conversation. Having tried various lengths of grass in the Sheffield Shield, it appears more rather than less will be left on in an attempt to give the surface some life. Could it even be green enough to encourage a team to bowl first? The weather may play a part in how the surface develops with hot, sunny conditions forecast for at least the first four days.
Stats and Trivia
Nathan Lyon already holds the record for the most wickets taken by an Australian spinner in a series against India on home soil (23 in 2014) but with 16 already from two Tests this time he could go past that.
Virat Kohli has scored five Test hundreds in 2018, equalling his tally from 2017 as his best year. A century in Melbourne would put him alone in second place for the most in a year by an India batsman behind Sachin Tendulkar’s seven in 2010.“I believe in confidence, there’s no doubt. Confidence, like respect, is something you have to earn. We haven’t had much success…to win one, it’s nice to get rewarded for the work the boys are doing. There were some really good signs in Perth.”